Art collectors looking for masterpieces haven’t seen many at auction houses this year. A better bet would be the blockbuster exhibition at the Di Donna Galleries in New York that opened Thursday.

A Mark Rothko painting, which had been owned by late banking heir Paul Mellon and fetched $36.6 million two years ago at Sotheby’s, is a highlight of the show. Visitors at the chapel-like space on Manhattan’s Upper East Side can also see a 1950 jewel-toned Jackson Pollock and an early Kazimir Malevich that was recently at London’s Tate Modern museum.

As jittery sellers in a slowing market hold back their masterpieces from public auctions, some sales are shifting to top galleries. The Di Donna features 13 abstract paintings by American and European artists valued at $450 million, according to the gallery. While the works in "Paths to the Absolute" are not officially for sale, collectors may still make offers.

“There’s more happening on the private market right now than at auction,” said Emmanuel Di Donna, owner of the gallery. “Given the current financial climate and the U.S. elections, people have less confidence in the auction process. Privately, major transactions are taking place.”

The stars of the exhibition are the kind of paintings that appeal to trophy hunters. The show was inspired by a series of lectures from art historian John Golding at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1997 that were compiled into a book. The lectures explored the origins of 20th-century abstraction in seven artists that also make up the Di Donna show:  Rothko, Pollock, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian.

Clyfford Still’s Record

“The great gallerists can put together shows that are really of museum quality and in some cases they are even better than museum shows,” said Leonard Riggio, founder of Barnes & Noble Inc., who lent his “1945-R" by Still to Di Donna. “The greatest satisfaction we can get is to see our work exposed to the general public.”

Riggio bought his Still painting for $1.9 million at auction in 2003, establishing the artist’s auction record at the time. Still’s prices catapulted since then, with the current auction record at $61.7 million, according to Artnet.

“We look at it long term,” Riggio said. “I can tell you right now that my piece is not for sale.”

Another highlight is Malevich’s 1916 “Suprematist Composition" that fetched $60 million at Sotheby’s in 2008 and remains the Russian artist’s auction record. Its current market value is above $100 million, according to auction specialists.